With Independence Day approaching, it is fitting to look back at an inspirational example of someone who refused to submit to tyranny. The Roman historian, Cassius Dio records an event near the end of the life of Marcus Porcius Cato that serves to illustrate the current circumstances and outlook of citizens who strive for liberty against modern tyranny. A tyranny that holds its own against historical comparisons, which is seemingly becoming more pervasive.

Having taken up arms on behalf of the Republic against the outlaw rebel general Julius Caesar, and regrouping the remaining forces of the Roman Republic following the defeat of Pompey, Cato retreated to northern Africa. Trapped in the city of Utica, with the forces of tyrant-to-be Caesar just outside the frontiers of the city, Cato organized an evacuation of all the Roman citizens who fear death and destruction at the hands of Caesar’s army:

(Courtesy of Loeb Classical Library, and uploaded digitally by Bill Thayer)

“Cato, since many had sought refuge with him, was at first preparing to take a hand in affairs and to resist Caesar as best he might. But the people of Utica had not been hostile to Caesar in the first place, and now, seeing him victorious, would not listen to Cato; and the members of the senate and the knights who were present were afraid of being arrested by them, and so meditated flight. Cato himself, therefore, decided neither to war against Caesar, being unable to do so anyhow, nor yet to go over to his side. This was not because of any fear, since he understood well enough that Caesar would be very eager to spare him for the sake of his reputation for humanity; but it was because he passionately loved freedom, and would not brook defeat at the hands of anybody, and regarded Caesar’s pity as far more hateful than death. So he called together the citizens who were present, enquired where each one of them was intending to go, sent them forth with supplies for their journey, and bade his son go to Caesar. To the youth’s inquiry, “Why, then, do you also not do so?” he replied: “I, who have been brought up in freedom, with the right of free speech, cannot in my old age change and learn slavery instead; but for you, who were both born and brought up amid such a condition, it is proper to serve the divinity that presides over your fortunes.”

Cato’s admonishment to his son is essentially a disheartening confession that the younger generation had grown up in a system in which true freedom did not exist – worse still, they did not even realize it. They had been born into slavery, lived as slaves all their lives, and would die as slaves. The events serve to remind us of the precious cost of Liberty and Freedom, and the price it sometimes requires.

In the end, rather than surrender to Caesar, and allow himself to be used as a means of subduing the citizens of Rome into subservience to Caesar, Cato ended his own life on his own terms, entering the pantheon of history as a martyr for the cause of Liberty.

“Death of Cato of Utica” by Pierre-Narcisse Guerin (1797)

One thought on “Cato On Independence and Freedom

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